1813: The Yorkshire Luddites, for murdering William Horsfall 1879: Benjamin Hunter, in the Hunter-Armstrong Tragedy

1386: The Sow of Falaise, seeing justice done

January 9th, 2013 Headsman

There exists a receipt for January 9, 1386, in which the executioner of Falaise, France, acknowledges payment of ten sous and ten deniers

for his efforts and salary for having dragged and then hanged at the [place of] Justice in Falaise a sow of approximately three years of age who had eaten the face of the child of Jonnet le Macon, who was in his crib & who was approximately three months old, in such a way that the said infant died from [the injuries], and [an additional] ten s. tournoise for a new glove when the Hangman performed the said execution: this receipt is given to Regnaud Rigaut, Vicomte de Falaise; the Hangman declares that he is well satisfied with this sum and that he makes no further claims on the King our Sire and the said Vicomte.

From this tiny kernel of primary documentation — the only primary source that exists — an impressive legend has grown up around the “Sow of Falaise”. It’s been alleged by subsequent interlocuters that the condemned sow was dressed up as a person for execution, that other pigs were made to attend in order to take warning by their swinish sister’s fate, and even that the incident became so famous as to merit depiction in a church fresco.


The supposed fresco has been whitewashed, but Arthur Mangin’s L’Homme et la Bete (1872) took a stab at reconstructing it.

This bizarre scenario can’t help but raise the question for we later observers — just what was the objective in trying and “executing” a farm animal? Did the human supporting cast to this scene not feel itself ridiculous?


Scene from The Hour of the Pig.

Book CoverAccording to Paul Friedland‘s research for his fascinating recent survey of public executions, Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France, the subsequent embroideries around the Sow of Falaise have no basis in fact. They were simply made up … or rather, they were interpolations of authors who were baffled as we to see a sow hoisted on a gibbet.

“Punishment may be about many things, but in the last instance, we citizens of the modern world have an almost visceral need to believe that it is primarily about one thing: deterrence,” Friedland opines.

“The punishment of a pig for murder violates our modern understanding of the essential purpose of punishment because it punishes an animal, which we ordinarily do not believe to be capable of criminal intent, and because it does not lend itself very well to the principle of exemplary deterrence.” The tale’s evolution in later centuries “allowed an incomprehensible anecdote from the past to fit neatly into the modern paradigm of penal deterrence.”

Well, the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

Seeing Justice Done situates that murderous pig within an unfolding saga of penal theory and practice stretching from the Roman Empire to the 20th century. And while Friedland’s study focuses on France in particular, the historical threads he teases out will look familiar much further afield.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Frieldand about his book recently, and we’re pleased to present it here not in our customary Q&A form, but as Executed Today‘s debut podcast. The mediocre sound quality is on me, but Dr. Friedland’s insights are more than worth it. (Unlike your host, Friedland is a podcasting natural; catch him in a July 2012 episode of the New Books In Human Rights podcast.)


Trouble seeing the podcast player? Access the interview on podbean.

Other executions referenced in this podcast: Christ | the brutal 1757 execution of Damiens | Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette | the filmed 1939 execution of Eugen Weidmann | the last execution in France ever | Saddam Hussein‘s filmed hanging

(n.b. the intro/outtro music is Blind Lemon Jefferson‘s “‘Lectric Chair Blues”, a 1928 recording now in the public domain.)

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Animals,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Podcasts,Popular Culture,Public Executions

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7 thoughts on “1386: The Sow of Falaise, seeing justice done”

  1. Meaghan says:

    We still do “execute” animals that harm or kill human beings, we just call it having them “humanely destroyed” or “put down.” There are even occasional court hearings, at least for dogs, to decide whether the animal is dangerous enough to need to be killed, or whether other less drastic measures can be taken to ensure public safety, like muzzling it or something — kind of like a trial.

  2. Headsman says:

    Friedland actually draws the connection to the present-day practice of euthanizing dangerous animals explicitly in the book. (… we just didn’t get into it here.)

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